Latter-day Saints understand that they represent the Lord today as did His people in biblical days—from Adam through the period of the disciples chosen by the Lord Himself. By revelations to the Prophet Joseph Smith, truths known anciently by covenant people were revealed with greater clarity. An example is the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom given February 27, 1833.
Inspired prophets have always been given laws for their temporal well-being, as well as knowledge that saves eternally. Likewise, as a prelude to this revelation the Lord placed emphasis on both temporal salvation and spiritual salvation: “All things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal … for my commandments are spiritual.” (D&C 29:34–35.)
Restrictions on eating some foods were placed upon the Israelites, among other reasons, because of the circumstances in which they lived. A notable example, other than the law of Moses, was that of Daniel and his friends. While in captivity, they were permitted to eat foods made of grains and seeds rather than the “king’s meat” and wine of the Babylonians. They were healthier than their captors, and “God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” (Dan. 2:17.)
The modern Word of Wisdom, when obeyed, brings temporal and spiritual blessings. A diet of proper foods and an abstinence from harmful products, in addition to keeping other commandments, bring rewards.
The first three verses of Doctrine and Covenants, Section 89 [D&C 89:1–3] are described in the preface to the revelation as “an inspired introduction and description by the Prophet.” The second verse contains the phrase “To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom. …”
When the Word of Wisdom was given, many considered that it was not binding upon them because of this introductory statement. Why did the Lord give this revelation without specific direction that it was a commandment—a must?
Elder John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve from 1921 to 1952, suggested that the hard environment in which the early saints lived, especially after the Church moved to the West, provided an answer:
“In those frontier settlements food was usually plentiful but seldom of the best variety. Meat predominated; grains were usually available; vegetables and fruits were scarce. For stimulation, resort was often made to home-brewed alcoholic beverages, though there was little or no drunkenness; to tobacco, mostly for chewing; and to tea and coffee. These substances were commonly and freely used when available. This, of course, did not give permanent relief from the pains of the body, which were due in large part to the lack of correct physiological knowledge.” (Joseph Smith, Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God, Bookcraft, 1951, p. 198.)
A reply to this question was also given by President Joseph F. Smith, who said:
“The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by ‘commandment or constraint’ was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome before he brought them under the law.” (Conference Report, October 1913, p. 14.)
Another member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Ezra T. Benson, who served from 1846 to 1869, said: “Supposing He had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but He gave this without command or restraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father … ?” (Journal of Discourses, 11:367, April 7, 1867.)
During the administration of President Brigham Young, a plea was made to the saints in these words:
“Why not govern and control the appetite, that it may be subject to the law of Christ? But how is it? Why, ‘I must have some tobacco, if I am damned for it.’ Or, ‘I must have a cup of tea, if I am damned for it.’ Or, ‘I must have this or that, if I should have to go to hell for it.’ It is like saying to our Heavenly Father, ‘I will not mind you, I will not obey your commandments, but I will have my own way and follow the bent of my own inclinations; my appetite shall be nursed and pampered, though it be at the expense of your displeasure.’ Instead of pursuing this course, listen to that Spirit God has given to all, which teaches the right and how to avoid the wrong, and say to appetite, to disposition, to temper, to the whole man, you must do as I command you; I am an officer, a general in the army of Christ and I will be obeyed.” (Journal of Discourses, 9:257, March 16, 1862.)
Two members of the Quorum of the Twelve reminded the saints some years later that in a general conference President Young had declared the Word of Wisdom revelation to be a commandment. (Brigham Young, Jr., Millennial Star, 57:82, February 7, 1895; Francis M. Lyman, Conference Report, October 1908, p. 55.)
The Word of Wisdom has not always been lived by all members of the Church since the revelation was given. “Not by commandment or constraint” are the words that seemed to justify the laxness of many in that early period in the application of the Word of Wisdom.
The inspired introduction to the revelation contained this purpose “by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—
“Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” (D&C 89:2, 3.)
Those faithful saints who endeavored to live this law—though old habits were difficult to discontinue and a belief apparently was held by some that it was not a commandment—were bounteously blessed, as is the faithful saint today. They not only realized temporal salvation (health, economy of funds, etc.) and spiritual salvation (“wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures”), but they recognized that the will of the Lord is sufficient for obedience. Their acceptance of the will of the Lord, as it is today, was tantamount to a commandment. (D&C 89:2.)
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21; italics added.)
During the administration of President Heber J. Grant, seventh president of the Church (1918–1945), greater emphasis was placed upon the need for members of the Church to heed this “order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days.” (D&C 89:2.) He often stressed the fact that the revelation was a commandment.
Long before this, when Elder John Taylor succeeded President Brigham Young as president of the Church, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price were presented to the general conference for acceptance of the Church membership. Some deletions and additions had been made in these two volumes of scripture, so it was felt by the First Presidency that they should be approved by the membership of the Church. The presentation in the conference contained these words binding the membership to obedience: “Accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon Us as a people and as a Church.” (Journal History, Oct. 10, 1880.)
The Lord has been merciful to his people in times past, but over the years the leadership of the Church and dedicated parents have been able to raise the level of obedience to this commandment, which has brought numerous blessings to the faithful. Latter-day Saints are known as a people who are concerned about their temporal welfare as well as their spiritual salvation. They are often known by the world as a people who do not use alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, and harmful drugs.
The prophet Ezekiel prophesied of God’s people in the latter days when He would gather the children of Israel from among the nations and God would be known by the lives of his people: “and the heathen shall know that I am the Lord, saith the Lord God, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:23.)
Brother Doxey, director of Church correlation review, is the author of “Word of Wisdom Today,” and a former dean of religious instruction at Brigham Young University, Utah.